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a longing for home

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Esca rides.

It is still strange country, for all that he's spent hours and days with Marcus, rambling up the low hills and down again into the sparse forest. Days like this, he has no care for direction. The fog comforts him, protects him; he might be riding toward the edge of the world, or into the sea, for all he knows or cares. His mare snorts and shudders, used to his knees pressing into her, urging her ever on.

When the rhythm of hoof beats matches the pounding of his heart, he closes his eyes and remembers: a pale bird soaring over open fields; the trill of his sister's laughter; the stink of leather and piss around the warriors' camp as they repaired their war shields. All the things that created a home are fading into the grey now, too easily forgotten.

He turns the mare east, and whispers to her, "We must go back." She knows the way better than Esca does, and he gives her free rein.

They cross a low valley, skirting the edges of a familiar field. The small stable comes into view first, and then the hut. It is a poor place, not a fit home for a proud soldier, but they can do no better until the first years' crops are in and Esca has sold some horses. "Not you," he says to his mare, pleased to be a conspirator in her fate. Marcus will want to fetch a good price for her, but Esca likes the way she runs.

Marcus is waiting inside by the hearth, well out of the weather. He has been using his hands, applying his skill with tools to the life they are building. He does not look up when Esca enters, or when he strips out of his warm cloak. "You have been gone most of the day," Marcus says, obvious words to fill the space between them. The fire is well-tended; stew sits in a pot beside it. "There is food."

"I see," Esca says. He ignores his grumbling stomach; instead, he sits beside Marcus, turning a roughly-hewn chair leg in his hands. "This is fine work."

"It is not, but we can both pretend it is, if you like." Marcus grins, and Esca smiles back. Pride is not a thing which comes between them any longer. Marcus sobers, and says, "How do you find anything at all out there in the fog?"

Someday, Esca will tell him the truth - that he is lured away by what he does not find. To ride, and to pretend that it is not Rome's land all around him, Rome's trees and villages, Rome's heavy hand on his heart - to stretch his mind back to simpler days, so that he might remember his mother's face, and his father's war cry. But Marcus would be wounded by Esca's longing, no matter how much they have shared, and there are simpler truths to deliver.

"I find a reason to come home," he says instead, to see Marcus' eyes shine in the firelight and to know the touch of his hand, this one thing of Rome's he has taken for himself.